Hummingbirds of the Night

A few nights ago I saw what I thought was a hummingbird – out way past its bedtime – whirring around the fragrant, long-tubed blooms of the Rangoon creeper in my back yard.  As I watched, several more of these curfew-breakers appeared, working the flowers all up and down the fence.  I soon realized that these were not in fact hummingbirds, but were their nocturnal analogs:  hawk moths or sphinx moths.

Pandorus Sphinx Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: August Norman
 Pandorus sphinx

Talk about convergence!  If they hadn’t been flying at night – and there are some day-flying sphinx moths, by the way – I would have been hard put to tell they weren’t ruby-throated hummers (the most common hummingbird species in our area).  The sphinx moth in question (probably the five-spotted hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata) is about the same size and shape as a ruby-throat, with a bullet-shaped, streamlined body, and has exactly the same behavior.  The powerful wings of both hummers and sphinx moths beat so swiftly (up to 50 or so beats per second) that they are just a blur in flight.  Both can hover up, down, back and forth, helicopter-like.  Instead of a hummingbird’s long bill, sphinx moths have a long tongue or proboscis, kept rolled up when not in use and extended when reaching for nectar at the base of a long-tubed flower. 

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Both hummers and sphinx moths are important pollinators, and certain plants have evolved flowers that are specifically “designed” to attract these powerful fliers with their long beaks or tongues.  Such flowers typically have abundant nectar at the base of elongated floral tubes (the bottom part of the petals grows together to form a hollow tube).  But while hummingbird flowers are usually brightly colored (especially red) and often do not have any scent (since hummingbirds can’t smell), moth-pollinated flowers are typically white or pale-colored, and often emit a strong, sweet scent as the sun goes down.   

The family of sphinx moths, the Sphingidae, is a large one, with about 1200 species world-wide (most are tropical).  There are about 60 species of sphinx moths in North America, several of which occur locally.  Some of the most common species in our area are the Five-spotted sphinx, the Carolina sphinx, the Rustic sphinx, the Pink-spotted hawkmoth, White-lined sphinx, Tersa sphinx, Vine sphinx, and Pandorus sphinx

Another spectacular species, which occasionally ranges up from the tropics into our area, is the Giant sphinx.  This very large moth (over six inches across) is notable as the pollinator of the rare ghost orchid of Florida’s swamps, Dendrophylax lindenii.  Made famous in the book “The Orchid Thief” on which the movie “Adaptation” was based, this orchid has an extremely long, thin floral tube and depends on the giant sphinx moth to transfer pollen from one bloom to another in order to reproduce.  Take a look at the specimen of the giant sphinx from our collection.  Uncoiled, its tongue is almost nine inches long, almost twice as long as its body! 

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

This moth is the New World equivalent of the renowned “Darwin’s moth.”  As the story goes, when in Madagascar, Charles Darwin saw the orchid Angraecum sesquipidale (rather similar to the ghost orchid).  He postulated that there must be a moth with a tongue of equal length to the orchid’s 11 inch nectar spur that would serve as its pollinator.  Sure enough, 41 years later (long after Darwin’s death), such a moth was discovered and its common name acknowledges his prescience.

tomato hornworm
Creative Commons License  photo credit: naturegirl 78
Tomato hornworm
(Manduca quinquemaculata)

Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” because most of them have a distinctive horn that sticks up at the end of their abdomen.  If you are a gardener you may have encountered large, green hornworms devouring the foliage of your tomato plants; these turn into the five-spotted hawkmoth I saw visiting my Rangoon creeper.  Another hornworm frequently seen in the garden (if you grow pentas or star-flower) is the caterpillar of the Tersa sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  This caterpillar turns from green to brown as it grows, and has a pair of dramatic eyespots on its thorax.  People sometimes confuse it with the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail. While hornworms can eat a lot of foliage, I confess that in my garden they are welcome to it – I like the adult moths too much to consider destroying their destructive “baby” stage…  Besides, I think the caterpillars themselves are rather handsome! 

If you find a hornworm and want to rear it, be sure to provide it with a couple of inches of loose soil when it gets large enough to pupate.  Most sphinx moths pupate in the soil, and do not spin cocoons around the brown pupa.  Some sphinx pupae have the tongue pulled away from the body, resembling the handle on a pitcher or Greek vase!  Don’t disturb the caterpillar/pupa for several days after it burrows down or you may disrupt the pupation process. 

Whether or not you get into the caterpillars, it is always a thrill to see an adult sphinx moth in action.  To attract these nocturnal hummingbirds to your garden, consider planting some of the following.  As an added benefit, you’ll enjoy the wonderful fragrance on evenings when these plants are in flower.

Mirabilis
Creative Commons License  photo credit: sigusr0
Four O’clock (note long tube)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida)

Jimsonweed or Datura (Daturaspp.)

Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica)

Moon flower (Ipomea alba)

Four O’clocks (Mirabilis spp.)

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)

Before the Hurricane: Securing the HMNS Greenhouses

Red Beauty
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

As many of you know, the greenhouses of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) are located on the rooftop of the parking garage on the seventh floor.  Two days before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, my volunteer Penny and I were busy preparing the greenhouses for the upcoming storm.  Because we are a USDA regulated facility, we must adhere to specific guidelines in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. 

The first task at hand was to safely remove the Heliconius longwing butterflies from the rearing facility and transport them into the CBC lower-level basement where they were temporarily housed in 3’X4’ zippered/framed insectaries.  Penny helped out with the transport of the precious little ones and carefully placed a few nectar sources into the three separate insectaries along with a bowl of artificial nectar source. 

Next, we had to remove the 600 caterpillars which were all at different stages of growth to a pupation cage which we transported to the basement by way of my truck-bed.  To our dismay, the pupation cage would not fit through the newly repaired door frame on the seventh floor so we rolled it down the main hall of the museum by way of the main entrance handicapped ramp.  Once we had the pupation cage in place, we transferred the 600 caterpillars into the cage along with a feast of Passionflower vines for them to feed upon until the storm passed. 

We were so busy doing the transport and removal that our Staff Entomologist, Laurie, and Soni, our Assistant Conservatory Horticulturist, came up to the seventh floor to help out by watering the other plants within the greenhouses. Nancy, our CBC director, and Erin, our Insect Zoo Manager and Entomologist decided that because they lived close to the museum, they would make sure that the little ones housed in the basement would be tended to as soon as they could get into the museum district to do so.

passionfruit flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Meme!

In the greenhouse area, we spent all day removing all the projectile objects from the exterior (wood, concrete blocks etc.).  We secured the plastic tables that usually hold plants to the white fence with newly purchased ratchet straps.  The greenhouse shade screens are set up on a pulley system so we rolled them all down and secured them with the straps. 

Inside the greenhouse, we pushed aside the mist tent where we house our seedlings to make way for the 700-plus plants that were outside that had to come inside until the storm passed.  We also had shelves of thousands of plastic plant flats and thousands of plastic pots which had to be pulled into the greenhouses so that they wouldn’t fly all over from the high winds.  We removed the shade cloth from the exterior so that it would not get ripped up in the wind.  We also had cans full of  Osmocote, a timed released fertilizer, bone and blood meal, perlitevermiculite, soil-mix and orchid medium that we transported into the greenhouse.

Whew… what a day!  We left feeling good about having secured the greenhouses and hoped that when we returned that the greenhouses would still be there.

2008-09-15   15-47-08   IMG_2629
Creative Commons License photo credit: geocam20000

As I write this blog, there are still millions without electricity or water and lots of recovery is taking place in Houston and in my neighborhood, Katy.  The CBC greenhouses, I am happy to say, survived the winds and the rain.  Only one thing happened – two of the steel shade clothes decided to roll themselves backwards and ended up on the opposite side of the greenhouse but remained attached to the roof. 

Erin and Nancy cared for our babies in the dark basement with the aid of flashlights and for this I thank them.  Abraham, our groundskeeper, filled 55 gallon cans with water and Erin and Nancy hand watered the plants in the greenhouses.  There was no electricity in the museum until Wednesday afternoon – hence no elevator – so Abraham had to deliver the water to the seventh floor in the back of his truck.

Since then, we have returned the rearing pairs of longwing butterflies to the insectaries where as of yesterday, there was mating and egg-laying occurring – just as nature intended.   We hope that you are all faring well and wish only the best for you and your precious families.  If you do have a spot in your yard where a tree once stood, you may want to consider filling it with butterfly host plants and nectar plants not only for them, but also for the hummingbirds who will soon be migrating south and will stop in our yards to replenish their energy or to possibly build a nest. If you are able to, we hope you’ll join us for our Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 4 on the seventh floor of the parking garage, from 9 to 1 p.m. We would love to see you. 

Take Care…
Ory
 

The Black Swallowtail

I would like to introduce you to my favorite caterpillar, the Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.

I knew I had not seen a Black Swallowtail butterfly in my garden for a few weeks so, I thought I might not have any caterpillars to take a photo of. 

I was so pleased when I saw a large caterpillar resting on a stem covered in the fresh morning dew – especially when it just happened to be a Black Swallowtail. The caterpillars, when almost mature, are uniformly colored with their soft green skin etched in jet black stripes and speckled with lemon yellow dots.  The caterpillar’s soft creamy foot pads adhered so tightly to the stem swaying in the breeze, it looked as though it would never let go. It was certainly an unexpected pleasure.

The early stages of these larvae look like bird droppings.  This is a method of camouflage that protect them from predators. I ran to get my camera and tried to get a good shot.  Not wanting to disturb the larvae, I sat down in the grass next to the garden bed and took the photo.

The Black Swallowtail butterfly is a graceful flyer swaying from left to right (not in a zigzag, but in a gentle glide swaying from side to side.)  The Black Swallowtail male and female butterflies are dimorphic, meaning that they have a difference in the coloration of their wing patterns.

Blacktail Swallowtail Host Plant

The host plants of the Black Swallowtail are in the parsley family such as carrots, parsley, dill and celery fennel.  I recall one afternoon late in the fall, a museum visitor brought in some Black Swallowtail caterpillars because they had eaten all the parsley in her garden and she was worried that they would not live.

I placed the caterpillars in a plastic shoe box with holes in the lid.  Inside the box I placed a slightly moist paper towel and some fresh organic parsley I purchased at the grocery.  The caterpillars were just fine with this method of alternative feeding.  They all pupated on the lid of the box and remained in good health. Within a few weeks time they were set free atop the 7th floor of the parking garage.  They gently took the breeze on down to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Demonstration garden and began their life cycle once again.

Stop by the Demonstration garden the next time you visit the museum and see if you can spot any caterpillars.

Magnificent Monarch’s Munch

Are you ready for their arrival to your beloved garden?  Have you planted enough milkweed to feed your brood of caterpillars that will no doubt be munching away all summer long? 

If you haven’t, then you need to get busy.  The Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus will soon be feasting in your beautiful garden.  So, you want to be sure to have lots of milkweed on hand to feed your hungry caterpillars. 

danaus-plexippus-instarsresize.jpg

If you want to know how many leaves it takes to feed three monarch caterpillars from egg to  pupation, then I recommend a healthy plant with no pesticides on it, that is about 24-36″ high and about 16-24″ wide.  If this plant has lots of leaves, it might even feed five to seven caterpillars.  You probably already know that monarch caterpillars can eat a lot of milkweed so, if you want a healthy brood, save your seed pods that the plant produces in the fall.  You can then plant your own little seedlings into your garden in April.

asclepias-curassavicaresize.jpg

The first butterfly plant I ever came home with was the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.   The plant was given to me by the greenhouse manager of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  She said,” Go home and plant this in your garden and before you know it, butterflies will come to your yard.  I said,” Really, are you sure? How will they find it in my yard?”

Well, sure enough the next day – within twenty four hours – a female monarch butterfly found my plant.  She even laid eggs on it.  I was so excited, I just couldn’t believe all I had to do was to put the plant in my garden and they would come to it.  How wonderful to be visited by such a jewel of nature. 

So believe me when I tell you that all you have to do is to introduce the specific plants listed on our butterfly gardening brochure to your garden and you too will have jeweled visitors glistening in the sun. 

They are a delight to the eye and a splendid conversational  topic when you have the neighbors over for a summer barbeque.  Your neighbors will want to know how you attracted them to your yard and you can share your splendid butterfly gardening tips with them.  Gardeners make great friends!

danaus-plexippus-copyresize.jpg

Monarch Watch is an exceptional website – very user friendly, safe for students, often utilized by teachers and because it is so special – it is also listed as a helpful resource on the back of our Cockrell Butterfly Center Butterfly Gardening Brochure.  The Cockrell Butterfly Gardening Brochure, graciously underwritten by The Garden Club of Houston, is always available to our visitors at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. The brochure is also available online

The Collector’s Gift Shop inside the museum’s main hall, near the Cockrell Butterfly Center, has a plant cart outside of its entrance door which always has a supply of the gardening brochures available free to the public. For a small cost, gardening enthusiasts can also purchase The Plants of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a special work put together for visitors, teachers, students, and parents to use as an identification tool within the rainforest environment.  Plants that are identified in this book are noted in the rainforest conservatory with numbered red tags affixed to specific plant specimens for easy identification.

 We are so happy to know you are enjoying our blog.  In future blogs, I hope to write about each of the host and nectar plants in our brochure, so that you too can become an expert.  Questions about butterflies or butterfly gardening?   E-mail us at: bfly_questions@hmns.org.